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The Catcher in the Rye

by J. D. Salinger

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So you’re going to teach J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, The Catcher in the Rye has been a mainstay of English classrooms for decades. While it has its challenging spots—depression, death, and a deceptively blithe protagonist—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying The Catcher in the Rye will give them unique insight into Salinger’s narrative style and the bildungsroman form, as well as important themes surrounding individuality, innocence, and mental health. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 1951
  • Recommended Grade Level: 9-12 
  • Approximate Word Count: 73,000
  • Author: J. D. Salinger 
  • Country of Origin: United States
  • Genre: Bildungsroman
  • Literary Period: Postwar American
  • Conflict: Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society, Person vs. Self
  • Narration: First-Person Limited
  • Setting: California and New York, late 1940s and early 1950s
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Framed Narrative, Unreliable Narrator
  • Mood: Cynical, Derisive, Irreverent

Texts that Go Well with The Catcher in the Rye

The Bell Jar (1963), by Sylvia Plath, is a novel about the depression and recovery of Esther Greenwood. Esther becomes disillusioned and depressed during a summer she spends in New York City. She finds the world around her fake, disappointing, and trivial. The novel offers a female perspective to the time period and struggles addressed by The Catcher in the Rye.

Hamlet (1603), by William Shakespeare, features a protagonist consumed by many of the same concerns as Holden Caulfield. Like Holden, Hamlet is unable to place himself securely in the world and sees duplicity and deception everywhere he looks. Thematic and structural overlap between the works—also like Holden, Hamlet is prone to disaffection and ennui—can be used to show the universality of experience across time, and open conversations about the continuing relevance of classic works.

The Outsiders (1967), by S. E. Hinton, tells the story of Ponyboy, a teenager whose identity and experiences are shaped by his low economic status. Ponyboy and his social circle are considered “outsiders” by much of society. Like Holden, Ponyboy experiences formative events that shape his perspective and identity as he comes of age; unlike Holden, Ponyboy’s development involves close relationships with his family and community.

On the Road (1957), by Jack Kerouac, follows Sal Paradise as he roams the United States and Mexico, accompanied by the chaotic Dean Moriarty. Like The Catcher in the Rye, the novel features an unconventional plot, a wandering protagonist, a stream-of-consciousness narrative, and a mid-century American vernacular.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) is James Joyce’s first novel. It follows Stephen Dedalus, who describes in a stream-of-consciousness narrative his changing emotional and spiritual perspectives of the world as he comes of age. The novel pairs well with The Catcher in the Rye in that both are bildungsromane that feature idiosyncratic narrative voices. Further, Portrait offers a more direct example of literary modernism for students interested in studying that movement.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999), by Stephen Chbosky, is a bildungsroman centered on the high school experiences of its protagonist, Charlie. Wallflower offers a more recent lens through which to explore some of the same topics as The Catcher in the Rye, as both Holden and Charlie grapple with the death of a loved one and feelings of isolation.

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Key Plot Points